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EDA Honors Newport Tech Depot Project

3 min read

Downtown Newport’s Tech Depot project claimed the Star of the Southwest Award recently at the annual conference of the Southwest Region Economic Development Association in Oklahoma City.

The U.S. Economic Development Association’s Austin regional office honored the Newport Economic Development Office, the White River Planning and Development District, the city of Newport and Jackson County for their leadership in the project.

Tech Depot is a regional technical development and workforce training training center taking advantage of grants and business partnerships.

The Newport Tech Depot project shared the Star of the Southwest Award with winners from five other states. The Austin office of the U.S. Economic Development Association funded all of the winning projects. The award honors efforts that have a significant economic impact for communities, that demonstrate a meaningful commitment by the private sector, and offer a return on investment for the EDA. The winning projects are from Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico.

“All of the EDA projects in each of the states can be nominated, and they pick the one they think has had the most community impact and that best fulfills the mission,” Newport Economic Development Director Jon Chadwell said in a telephone interview. “So we’re really proud to be the one from Arkansas. The program has been going great. It’s better than even we thought it would be.”

The EDA seeded the Tech Depot project with a $2.5 million grant, and it opened in a temporary home at Newport’s historic Iron Mountain Depot along the railroad tracks off Front Street in 2020. The EDA money came with a $645,000 match by the Newport Economic Development Commission and $495,000 in donations by local businesses and individuals. Early collaborators were the NEDC, Arkansas State University-Newport and the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences.

The moved into a new $4.3 million, 11,500-SF complex in November known as the Tech Depot Workforce and Technology Center.

The center started 2024 with a goal of having a daily count of people receiving training reach 500 by the end of the year. Through Wednesday, that number had surpassed 1,100, Chadwell said.

“We’ve done direct industry training for local businesses; other businesses have hired their own instructors and used our space and technology,” Chadwell said. “We’re having camps for kids this summer. Robotics, drone technology, 3-D printing and coding. All of those have been popular.”

The center sponsored ACT boot camps to help high school juniors and seniors improve their college admission scores. Training sessions for soft skills, mastering Microsoft Office programs and qualifying for jobs at Newport’s state prison have all drawn significant interest, Chadwell said.

“The one we did with the prison was kind of special,” he said.

The McPherson Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, a women’s prison, is Newport’s top employer with nearly 500 direct jobs and about 100 more positions with contractors. Even though the prison jobs pay well, the DOC had trouble finding candidates because correction officers face a six-week obligation to go to the department’s training academy in England (Lonoke County).

“You could only come home on the weekend,” Chadwell said. “And if you’re a single parent living in Newport, you can’t go away for six weeks and leave your kids.”

So Christel Taylor of the economic development office coordinated a pilot training program for the prison in February. “We trained 14 people and all 14 of them graduated and went to work there. So we’re going to do another one in July and another in October. The one in July already has 25 people registered for it.”

Chadwell said the tech and training center relies on its sponsors and partners to thrive. Top sponsors are the U.S. EDA, the Newport Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas EDC, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Delta Regional Authority and Entergy Arkansas.

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